- Last Updated: 6:18 AM, July 29, 2012
- Posted: 1:34 AM, July 29, 2012
LONDON — When the Olympics come to London, it would be downright daft to contain them to the airless pavilions and charmless stadia that swallow so many of these events whole. Why spend gajillions to raise new buildings when you’ve spent the better part of a century creating a city that already is perfectly suited to host the world?
Isn’t that right, Charlie?
“It’s amazing what you can do ad-libbing,” my new friend, Charlie, is saying, marveling at the ability of a television reporter to ask questions while backstepping in perfect time with Charlie and his wife — I think her name is Camilla. I tried to ask the gentleman what his day job was; I believe he said “Prince of Whales.”
Yes. This is the way the Games of London should begin, no? Here at The Mall, the London road that stretches from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square, where the first event of the Games, the men’s road cycling race, has just gotten started, where the Prince wanted to shake hands with British participants.
When he was done, he repaired to his home at Clarence House, not far from The Mall, and soon he was standing about as far from me as this column is from you, and he was having a fine time. The English racers would disappoint (Alexandr Vinokurov of Kazakhstan won the race) but the Games were on, Charlie and his bride were smiling, the sun was shining.
“A glorious day, wouldn’t you say?”
That is Martin Norton speaking. He is a London police officer, a Bobby, although standing a good 6-foot-8 (and with his official Home Office Pattern Helmet, you can make that more like 7-4) and not an ounce less than 250 pounds, he is more a full-bore Robert. Back in 2003 he served for a week as a member of an international color guard at Ground Zero (“We wore our official uniforms — tunics and all,” he says).
Today Martin is handling crowd control in front of the Horse Guards Parade just before 11 o’clock, when there will be a changing of the guard for the horsemen (and the horses) presently standing duty. At the entrance, a sign tells the old tale of why these guards were created, when Queen Victoria discovered them off-duty and demanded a change of the guard each day, a tradition now 120 years old.
Martin tells another story.
“They were drunk,” he says, “and she caught them.”
Martin, like many Londoners you will see this week, is trying to endure the 17-day world invasion that passes as athletic competition, and though he will be in the center of much of the Olympic fury, he will keep them at arm’s length. “I’ll avoid them,” he says, “like the plague.”
Just then, amid the hush of 11 o’clock, as this solemn duty unfolds, there comes from behind the guards’ stand a splitting roar, and that makes perfect sense. For on these very grounds, the beach volleyball competition is taking place, Germany’s Katrin Holtwick and Ilka Semmler defeating the Czech Republic duo of Hana Klapalova and Lenka Hajeckova.
English decorum colliding with the dude-where’s-my-board-wax? vibe of beach volleyball, right there in the air high above Whitehall Road. It should seem an odd juxtaposition. It is, instead, perfect.
As is the final stop of the afternoon, the Lord’s Cricket Ground, just outside the St. John’s Wood Tube stop and a mere block or two from the famous zebra crossing at Abbey Road that the Beatles instantly turned immortal with one stroll across on a sunny day 43 years ago.
These are where the archery competition takes place, when ardent British loyalists rail about the locals (“We’re rubbish,” says a South Londoner named Les, shaking his head over a lunchtime glass of wine) and watch what has to be one of the most remarkable skill competitions to watch live, competitors taking aim from 70 meters away and rarely missing the center of the target by more than a few centimeters.
But the venue is the star: These grounds have stood since 1814. The star attraction most days is a small urn, in which reside the 130-year-old ashes of the bails — the wooden tops of the cricket stumps — from the first time Australia beat England in cricket on Aug. 29, 1882. Cricket games have been known to last five days — or, as the Red Sox and Yankees call it, the “seventh inning.”
I make that joke. It falls on silent ears. It’s unwise to be glib in a church, after all.Follow @NYPostsports